In the current age, at least, it’s hard to imagine a more flamboyant racist than Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who was caught disparaging “black people” (emphasis his) on tape. He has nothing but disdain for African-Americans, telling his girlfriend—herself black and Mexican—that it “bothers” him “a lot” that she wants to “broadcast” she’s “associating with black people” and that she shouldn’t “bring them to [his] games,” despite the fact his games are played by black people.
Naturally, this tirade has sparked a wave of justified anger and protest, as well as condemnation from the NBA’s biggest stars. “It’s a shame that Donald Sterling feels that way about African-Americans,” said Magic Johnson, who Sterling name-checked as a black person not to bring to his games. Shaquille O’Neal called the audio “repugnant,” and in a statement, Michael Jordan—who mostly shies away from controversy—said, “There is no room in the NBA—or anywhere else—for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed.”
He’s right. In a league dominated by black athletes, there is zero room for Sterling’s brand of booming bigotry. It’s a good thing for Sterling that his worst offenses were quiet and concrete: the kinds of actions that harm people in their daily lives but stay under the radar.
What’s striking about Sterling’s rant and its hours of coverage is the extent to which it isn’t new. To wit, in 2003, 19 plaintiffs sued Sterling for housing discrimination. In the suit, Sterling is accused of telling his staff that he did not like blacks and Hispanics, citing their behavior. “Hispanics smoke, drink, and just hang around the building,” he allegedly said.
What’s more, the lawsuit said, Sterling told his staff that he only wanted to rent his apartments to Koreans and forced black tenants to sign in when they entered the building. “Is she one of those black people that stink?” he allegedly asked of an elderly black tenant who needed repairs to her apartment. “I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch.” His wife, Rochelle Sterling, also participated, posing as a health inspector to harass tenants and record their ethnicities.
Donald Sterling settled for an undisclosed sum in 2005—paying $5 million in plaintiff legal fees—but faced renewed scrutiny in 2006, following federal civil rights charges. According to the Justice Department, Sterling, his wife, and his three companies engaged in housing discrimination by refusing to rent to blacks and “creating, maintaining, and perpetuating an environment that is hostile to non-Korean tenants” at their properties. Again, Sterling settled. He paid $2.65 million to a fund for people harmed by his discriminatory practices—a record sum in a federal housing suit—as well as $100,000 to the government.
These were huge offenses—entrenchments of disadvantage in a city segmented by past bias. After all, Los Angeles was heavily redlined throughout the 20th century, with blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and other minorities blocked from mortgage loans and relegated to the least desirable parts of the city.
But, despite the magnitude of the offenses and the size of the settlements, there was no outrage. Sterling caused actual harm to dozens of families, and the response was near silence. And it’s in that contrast that we can clearly see our public hypocrisy on racism.
When it comes to open bigotry, everyone is an anti-racist. The same Republicans who question the Civil Rights Act and oppose race-conscious policy are on the front lines when it’s time to denounce the outlandish racism of the day. “I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in response to Cliven Bundy’s digression on “the Negro.” Sean Hannity, the Fox News personality who championed Bundy’s cause of free grazing rights, blasted Bundy for his “ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable” comments.
Indeed, the mere hint of racial insensitivity is enough to bring the hammer down, as we rush to refute and repudiate the transgressor. This can go too far—see the most recent controversy over Donald Rumsfeld—but it’s an understandable impulse, and on the whole, a good one.
At the same time, we all but ignore the other dimension of racism—the policies and procedures that sustain our system of racial inequality. The outrage that comes when a state representative says something stupid about professional basketball players is absent when we learn that black children are punished at dramatically higher rates than their white peers, even as preschoolers. Likewise, it’s absent when we learn that banks targeted minorities—regardless of income—for the worst possible mortgage loans, destroying their wealth in the process.
In turn, this blinds us to the racial implications of actions that seem colorblind. In a world where racism looks like cartoonish bigotry, it’s hard to build broad outrage for unfair voter identification laws or huge disparities in health care access.
In fairness, some of this comes from caution. Do we want to denounce Sterling for housing discrimination if we don’t know the full story? Is it fair to decry his racism if we don’t have the facts?
What’s more, we risk implicating ourselves by taking a broader view of racism. If I condemn Sterling for refusing federal vouchers, do I indict myself for opposing low-income developments in my neighborhood? When it comes to adjudicating bias, racist words are easier to condemn—and a little less thorny—than actions.
But this shouldn’t be our concern in the first place. For as much as it satisfies to condemn racism in the public sphere, it’s also a distraction. Donald Sterling’s personal disdain for black Americans is less important than his racist property management, in the same way that Lyndon Johnson’s prejudice—he said the word nigger, a lot—is less important than his civil rights record.
That’s not to discount the experience of hatred—it’s painful to hear and worse to experience. But when it comes to bigotry as a public issue, what you do is more important than what you say. A world where Donald Sterling hates black people but rents to them at fair prices is better than one where he loves them, but still discriminates.
Read more about Clippers owner Donald Sterling.